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How to Grill Better Burgers

May is BURGER MONTH!!! 

Burgers are one of the most commonly grilled foods. Ironically (or maybe not), they are one of the more complicated things to grill correctly. And by correctly, I mean that the end result is a juicy, beefy, well-seasoned, FLAT burger with a great sear and char for bonus deliciousness.

Bull Outdoor Products is the proud sponsor of the Burger Battle that takes place each year at the World Food Championships. Additionally, Bull hosts a number of local qualifying Burger Battles leading up to the final battle which will be in Kissimmee, FL this November. Wade Fortin, a member of Team Bull, has taken home the Burger Champion title (along with a sweet check for $10,000) the past two years. We know a little something about grilling burgers!

Whether you just want to dazzle friends with your burger prowess or join Wade as a member of Team Bull, here is my guide to Grilling A Better Burger.

How To Grill Better Burgers
Not All Ground Beef Is Created Equal

Choose the best and freshest meat that you can. With all of the recent safety recalls surrounding ground meat lately, there is something to be said for getting your meat freshly ground by your butcher or even grinding it at home yourself. Supermarket ground beef is not necessarily ground fresh that day or even ground at that location. Freshly ground beef is generally safer because you or your butcher select the cut(s) to be ground and you know that you’re not getting ground “parts”. The meat and resulting burger will be more tender and far more juicy when using freshly ground meat.

Why Fat Is Good

Just as important to the freshness and quality of the ground meat is the percentage of fat that is in the grind. Fat is what flavors the burger and makes it juicy. I think it is great to eat clean, lean meats when possible, but lean ground beef (10% to 15% fat) is often greatly lacking in both flavor and juiciness; anything less than 10% is going to be dry and chewy, so why bother? Personally, I like my ground beef to be somewhere around 15% to 20% fat to ensure that I am getting a rich, beefy, flavorful, juicy burger. Anything more than 20% fat will be big in flavor but a little greasy for my tastes.

It’s Not Just Ground Beef

Much like a steak, the flavor and texture of your hamburger starts with the cut of beef that was ground (another reason to buy freshly ground beef). If you are buying supermarket ground beef, try to buy it ground all from one cut such as ground chuck or sirloin.

Chuck (20% fat) is from a very exercised muscle so it is very flavorful. However, because it is more exercised, it contains more connective tissue which results in a chewier texture.
Sirloin (15% fat) is leaner than chuck, but also has a less rich beefy flavor. The trade-off is that it is more tender and has a better overall mouth feel.

I find that a 50/50 blend of both chuck and sirloin gives me the overall rich beefy flavor, juiciness and chew that I like in a burger. Chefs often add one or more additional cuts to their burger grind when trying a personalized “gourmet blend”.

Short Rib is a common power player among chefs when it comes to enhancing the rich beef flavor of a burger.
Brisket, like short rib, is often added to “gourmet” burger grinds. Brisket not only enhances the beefiness of the burger, but it also gives the burger a satisfying chew.

Size and Shape

A great burger should be thick enough that it doesn’t dry out before you get a good sear on the outside and large enough that it fills up the bun. I find that a 6-ounce patty works great for standard hamburger buns and an 8-ounce patty is suitable for more pub-style burgers.

A digital kitchen scale is a great tool that I would highly recommend when making burgers. A scale ensures that your patties are not only the same size from one to the next, but also that they will all cook at the same rate making it easier to judge when they are cooked to yours and your guests liking.

After weighing out the ground beef for individual patties (yes, I do actually weigh them), gather the portions and lightly pack them into balls before shaping the patty. You want to use a light touch here – the meat needs to be packed loosely enough that it leaves tiny pockets for the juices to accumulate while cooking, but tight enough so that the meat stays together on the grill. Form the patties so that they are slightly bigger than the bun to allow for some shrinkage while it cooks.

Don’t Press on it, Give it a Dimple

We have all experienced of putting perfectly flat burger patties on a grill only to have them looking closer to balls by the time they are done cooking. This is because as the proteins in the meat cook, they contract toward the center away from the heat resulting in a center-bulge. The response of the burger novice is to try and press them flat with the spatula, but all that really does is press the juice out of the burger. A simple solution to the dreaded “burger bulge”, is to use your thumb and put a dimple in the center of the patty and as the burger cooks, the dimple will simply fill in instead of the burger puffing up.

K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simply Seasoned

Like eating a great steak, you want to taste the rich beefy flavor of your burger. If you start with great quality meat, a little ground black pepper and salt may be all you need. I often add a little granulated garlic and sometimes a pinch of cayenne along with freshly ground black pepper to the ground meat to enhance the beef flavor before shaping the patties.

Salt – Never add salt to the ground beef itself. Unlike steaks that you want to salt early, burgers are best when salted right before they hit the grill. Salt promotes the dissolving of muscle tissue and connective tissue which, in the case of steak, makes it more tender. Salting burgers early changes the texture of the meat causing it to feel mushy or pasty in the mouth. Salting burger generously right before they hit the grill also helps to form that nice sear and crust.

Cold Burger…

Once the patties are formed, refrigerate them for at least an hour before cooking. Unlike steaks or other cuts of meat, you want your patties cold before they hit the hot grill. The cold burger also allows it to stay on the grill a little longer to get a nice sear, but more importantly, if the fat is already warm or at room temperature, it will cook out of the burger before it is finished cooking resulting in a potentially dry burger.

If I am making burgers outdoors and don’t have any refrigeration, I sandwich ice between two baking sheets to set the burgers on to keep them as cold as possible. Even if I made the patties inside, I carry them to the grill this way.

... Hot Grill

The best way I have found for grilling up thick juicy burgers is to use two zones of direct heat – both high and low heat. Start the burgers over high heat to get a great sear on the outside and then move them over to low heat to finish cooking through. The best way to tell if your burger is done is with an instant read thermometer.

Now here’s the deal with ground meat and why the USDA recommends that it be cooked completely though: Any bacterium that has formed on a whole cut of meat (like a steak or a full roast) is found only on the outside of the meat and is killed once the meat hits the heat. However, when meat is ground, the bacteria from the surface gets ground into and mixed in with the meat. For this reason, ground meats have a higher recommended internal temperature. Harmful bacteria are killed at 145°F, and the USDA deems ground meat safe at 160°F to be certain that a temperature of 145°F or higher is achieved throughout.

I like my burgers on the medium-rare side of things, medium at the most. When I grind my own beef or have my butcher do it, I am a lot more comfortable cooking and eating them medium-rare. If I buy ground chuck and sirloin from the supermarket, I always make sure the meat is to a minimum of 145°F.

Finishing Touches

If you really want impress with a gastro pub burger, baste the patties with butter once you have moved it over to the lower heat side of the grill. Infuse the butter with some garlic or hers to take it over the top.

During the final two minutes of cooking, top burgers with a slice of cheese and toast your buns. To toast the buns, brush the cut-side with some melted butter (you already have it from basting your burgers, right?) and place the buns cut-side down on the grill. Toasted buns not only add another layer of flavor, but also help keep them from getting soggy from all those delicious burger juices.

Finally, rest the burgers for 5 minutes before biting into them. The juices will redistribute for optimum juiciness and give you time to get your fixings in order.

Dress it up!

And do it with relish (or not)! Adding condiments, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, etc. is a personal choice. However you like your burgers, then go for it!

Serves